States Showcase Successes, Pitch New Vision

By: - September 15, 2000 12:00 am

Confronted with a new set of environmental challenges, states are leading the public policy charge toward a cleaner, healthier America. But the current structures of cooperation linking environmental protection authorities are doing more harm than good to their efforts, a handful of top state officials and analysts told a Congressional panel Wednesday (9/13).

Environmental regulators from Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont were invited to Capitol Hill to tell their success stories as lawmakers began preparations for what could become a more formal debate about the reorganization of responsibilities shared by states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The subcommittee, part of the House Committee on Government Reform, includes the EPA and the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and Transportation within its jurisdiction.

Hackney, who also chairs the environment committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said that apart from revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, most major pieces of federal environmental legislation are at least ten years old.

“Although during that time we have made great progress in reducing point-source pollution, a significant amount of pollution no longer comes from the end of a pipe at a factory, or publicly owned treatment works, but from pollution draining from parking lots, lawns and farms non-point sources,” he said.

Declaring environmental policy to be in a “state of transition,” analyst Lynn Scarlett of the conservative, Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute urged Congress to shape a more flexible oversight role for the federal EPA and give state agencies more room for innovation beyond baseline federal standards.

Policy should emphasize results over strict adherence to federally mandated regulatory protocols, create “performance partnership” incentives for private sector co-operation and take local circumstances into consideration, she said.

Scarlett credited states with leadership in both parties for launching creative reforms.

One example was Texas, much-maligned during Gov. George W. Bush’s bid for the White House for what environmentalists claim is a dismal record of environmental failure. Scarlett’s testimony cited the state’s Clean Industries 2000 program, which in one year fostered “reductions in hazardous waste by 43,000 tons; reductions in energy consumption by 11.3 million kilowatt hours; and reductions in 317 million gallons of water consumption” by 140 participating firms.

According to the Environmental Council of States ( ECOS), states are the environment’s big spenders, nearly doubling EPA’s total budget in 1996 and performing over three-quarters of all environmental enforcement actions.

In more than a handful of states, that spending has achieved results lauded throughout the environmental community. Innovations presented by witnesses included:

  • Pennsylvania’s Land Recycling Program, which has cleaned up 777 brownfields and begun reclaiming hundreds more. By comparison, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary James M. Seif noted that only 16 of 112 Superfund sites in the Keystone State have been delisted.
  • Oregon’s Green Permits, which reward corporate environmental leadership and effective performance with benefits like streamlined reporting and modified monitoring. Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) has applauded the permits for “solving problems, not just running programs.”
  • The reorganization of Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency around coherent environmental regions. Like the EPA, most state agencies are still organized by “silos” categories like land, water, or air protection, which Commissioner Karen A. Studders says left authorities no reason to share information across topics. Dividing Minnesota into a mining and recreational north, an agricultural south and a smaller metropolitan region around the Twin Cities promoted holistic environmental solutions, she said.
  • Florida’s award-winning Quarterly Performance Report. The report, and DEP Secretary David B. Struhs’ “more protection, less process” mission statement are ways in which state officials say they are moving to meet a growing public demand for private-sector environmental responsibility.

Vermont’s efforts to reduce diesel pollution, restore watersheds and protect fish from mercury wastes, a serious problem throughout New England and eastern Canada.

State officials frequently mentioned their preference for measuring results over process during an afternoon in which EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance took repeated hits for bureaucratic adherence to form. Pennsylvania’s Seif compared OECA to a hammer. “Every problem looks like a nail,” he said.

But minority members Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) challenged the “race to the top” premise of the hearing, questioning whether relinquishing too much federal authority to the “laboratories of democracy” would not quickly deteriorate into a “race to the bottom.” Kucinich said that while “states should be able to target local priorities,” at least 19 states have passed laws barring additional standards that would tighten federal minimums.

“There are significant pressures … for states to go under federal standards,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Olson advocated that new policies take shape under what he called “cooperative federalism”: recognition of states’ local expertise, resources and political leverage as well as their need for federal backup.

Sanders, a co-sponsor of pending bills aimed at curbing emissions from smokestacks and power plants, said that a future of state-led policy innovations could not tackle problems like asthma, the hole in the ozone layer, and acid rain that cross state lines. The Green Mountain State’s biggest environmental threats are already “not under the control of the state of Vermont,” he said.

“Someone needs to be in charge of all fifty states,” Sanders said.

No one disagreed with Sanders. But all were prepared to offer policy tips, most of which were neatly packaged by Minnesota’s Studders:

  • Statutory flexibility and the creation of a congressional task force to formally probe policies that would encourage continued state-level innovation
  • Directing OECA to focus more on environmental impacts than on procedural purity
  • An increase in flexible funding that could flow to state-determined priority projects
  • Improved, formalized communications between the states and the federal government; among EPA’s ten regional offices; and among the states themselves
  • Enforcement through incentives rather than penalties
  • Saving “billions of dollars spent on useless data” by coordinating the data collection and reporting systems that currently differ between every state and the EPA.

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